Big tech firms racing to track climate refugees

“Everybody deserves to have formal identification that they can use to exert their rights,” says Brandie Nonnecke, director of the CITRIS Policy Lab, as to why we need to solve the problem of safely identifying people displaced by climate change.

MIT Technology Review: To be an undocumented refugee, these days, is to exist in many places and to not exist at all. It is to have your movements, words, and actions tracked, archived, and multiplied. It is to live between fences, tents, and databases—one new entry per doctor’s visit, per bag of rice, per canister of water. It can mean having your biometric and biographical data scanned, stored, and cross-checked by people you do not know, and who speak a language you may not understand. It is to have your identity multiplied, classified, and reduced to lines of code. It is to live in spreadsheets.  

Today, around 1.1 billion people live without a recognized form of identification. In many cases, their papers—if they ever had papers at all—have been burned, lost, or otherwise destroyed. And the number is growing every day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, estimates that in 2017, one person became displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict, economics, or climate change. “In short, the world had almost as many forcibly displaced people in 2017 as the population of Thailand,” the agency reports. “Across all countries, one in every 110 persons is someone displaced.”  

Each year, an average of 24 million people are displaced because of extreme climatic events, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. By 2050, the World Bank predicts, over 143 million people across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will become climate refugees. Perhaps some of them will be lucky enough to save their passports, national identification cards, health and education records from destruction. But those pieces of paper may not mean anything wherever they end up. How will they prove who they are?  

Photo: UNHCR/Keane Shum